Academic journal article New Formations

Compulsory Happiness and Queer Existence

Academic journal article New Formations

Compulsory Happiness and Queer Existence

Article excerpt

A love that is constituted in loss is a love that yields a longing that can never be fulfilled. It hardly needs to be silenced.

George Haggerty (1)

If you are homosexual, there's a lot to keep you busy these days. It can be hard to keep up with the ever-expanding menu of rights, privileges, and lifestyle options being made available. These new opportunities include not only the right to enjoy legal sodomy in the comfort of your own home and to be protected from discrimination on the job but also widening access to niche goods and services: lesbian cruises, gay cake toppers, queer prime time. Apart from all the A-list entertainment, there are also weddings and commitment ceremonies to plan. Being in the life has never looked so good or cost so much.

With the arrival of this new set of opportunities, certain traditional narratives of gay existence are starting to look a bit dated. The dark plush interior of the closet has recently been subject to inspection and remodel; tragic love, life in the shadows, and harrowing loneliness have been tossed out to make room for lighter and airier versions of gay life. Nothing makes clearer how fungible the old stories are than the case of James McGreevey, the ex-Governor of New Jersey. Misguided generosity to a handsome aide, sex in rest stops, late-night phone calls--his story has all the makings of a tragedy on the scale of M. Butterfly. Such a chain of events has traditionally led to a grisly and protracted scene of gay martyrdom. McGreevey did 'face criticism' and lose his job but it just wasn't like the old days anymore. In his resignation speech, mostly spent apologising for lying to his wife and to the citizens of New Jersey, he struck a somewhat discordant note of pride, stating: 'My truth is that I am a gay American'. (2) After a brief time spent learning the difference between 'good shame' (shame about lying and being in the closet) and 'bad shame' (shame about being gay), McGreevey moved on to a career in advocacy and began work on his best-selling memoir, The Confession. Forget De Profundis: this book is not written 'from the depths' of Reading Gaol, but rather from the study of the sprawling suburban house McGreevey now shares with his 'life partner,' Australian financial planner Mark O'Donnell.

Thanks to decades of gay and lesbian activism, McGreevey's confession did not end his life or his chances for happiness. By his own account, accepting his homosexuality seems to have opened the door to authentic happiness. His story is, in many respects, typical. It resembles many post-Stonewall coming-out stories: painful and confused loneliness; exposure and awakening; acceptance and integration into the community. What sets this story apart is the picture-perfect quality of life after coming out: released from the lies and paranoia of the closet, McGreevey seems to be living a life that is not only purged of the shame and stigma of homosexuality, but actually enviable by any measure. Handsome, rich, and confident, he is by all appearances satisfied personally and professionally. In his memoir, McGreevey recalls dreaming of such a life as he left the statehouse: 'I allowed myself to picture a life organized in harmony with my heart. I fantasized about being in love, really in love--ordinary, boring, romantic love, the kind that takes you into old age, the kind my parents still have' (333).

Denied the opportunity to love in public and in private, lesbians and gays have often dreamed of romantic fulfilment and of a future in which the burdens of homosexual exile would melt away. With its focus on ordinary love, longevity, and his parents' marriage, McGreevey's dream is situated in our own historical moment--what has recently been called the era of 'gay liberalism'. (3) Unlike earlier gay fantasies of life 'over the rainbow' or in the backwoods of Finland, this fantasy is about being normal. While gay marriage is a reality for very few couples, the widespread circulation of its promise has wrought great changes in the political and psychic landscape. …

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